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THE BURDEN OF SKEPTICISM  

 
by Carl Sagan 
 
first published in Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 12, 
Fall 1987 
 

What is Skepticism? It's nothing very esoteric. We encounter it every


day. When we buy a used car, if we are the least bit wise we will exert
some residual skeptical powers -- whatever our education has left to us.
You could say, "Here's an honest-looking fellow. I'll just take whatever
he offers me." Or you might say, "Well, I've heard that occasionally there
are small deceptions involved in the sale of a used car, perhaps
inadvertent on the part of the salesperson," and then you do something.
You kick the tires, you open the doors, you look under the hood. (You
might go through the motions even if you don't know what is supposed
to be under the hood, or you might bring a mechanically inclined
friend.) You know that some skepticism is required, and you understand
why. It's upsetting that you might have to disagree with the used-car
salesman or ask him questions that he is reluctant to answer. There is at
least a small degree of interpersonal confrontation involved in the
purchase of a used car and nobody claims it is especially pleasant. But
there is a good reason for it -- because if you don't exercise some
minimal skepticism, if you have an absolutely untrammeled credulity,
there is probably some price you will have to pay later. Then you'll wish
you had made a small investment of skepticism early.

Now this is not something that you have to go through four years of
graduate school to understand. Everybody understands this. The trouble
is, a used car is one thing but television commercials or pronouncements
by presidents and party leaders another. We are skeptical in some areas
but unfortunately not in others.

For example, there is a class of aspirin commercials that reveals the


competing product to have only so much of the painkilling ingredient
that doctors recommend most -- they don't tell you what the mysterious
ingredient is -- whereas their product has a dramatically larger amount
(1.2 to 2 times more per tablet). Therefore you should buy their product.
But why not just take two of the competing tablets? You're not supposed
to ask. Don't apply skepticism to this issue. Don't think. Buy.

Such claims in commercial advertisements constitute small deceptions.


They part us from a little money, or induce us to buy a slightly inferior
product. It's not so terrible. But consider this:

I have here the program of this year's Whole Life Expo in San Francisco.
Twenty thousand people attended last year's program. Here are some of
the presentations: "Alternative Treatments for AIDS Patients: it will
rebuild one's natural defenses and prevent immune system breakdowns
-- learn about the latest developments that the media has thus far
ignored." It seems to me that presentation could do real harm. "How
Trapped Blood Proteins Produce Pain and Suffering." "Crystals, Are
They Talismans or Stones?" (I have an opinion myself) It says, "As a
crystal focuses sound and light waves for radio and television" crystal
sets are rather a long time ago -- "so may it amplify spiritual vibrations
for the attuned human." I'll bet very few of you are attuned. Or here's
one: "Return of the Goddess, a Presentational Ritual." Another:
"Synchronicity, the Recognition Experience." That one is given by
"Brother Charles. Or, on the next page, "You, Saint-Germain, and
Healing Through the Violet Flame." It goes on and on, with lots of ads
about "opportunities" -- ranging from the dubious to the spurious -- that
are available at the Whole Life Expo.

If you were to drop down on Earth at any time during the tenure of
humans you would find a set of popular, more or less similar, belief
systems. They change, often very quickly, often on time scales of a few
years: But sometimes belief systems of this sort last for many thousands
of years. At least a few are always available. I think it's fair to ask why.
We are Homo sapiens. That's the distinguishing characteristic about us,
that sapiens part. We're supposed to be smart. So why is this stuff always
with us? Well, for one thing, a great many of these belief systems
address real human needs that are not being met by our society. There
are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for
communion with the rest of the human community. There may be more
such failings in our society than in many others in human history. And
so it is reasonable for people to poke around and try on for size various
belief systems, to see if they help.

For example, take a fashionable fad, channeling. It has for its


fundamental premise, as does spiritualism, that when we die we don't
exactly disappear, that some part of us continues. That part, we are told,
can reenter the bodies of human and other beings in the future, and so
death loses much of its sting for us personally. What is more, we have an
opportunity, if the channeling contentions are true, to make contact with
loved ones who have died.

Speaking personally, I would be delighted if reincarnation were real. I


lost my parents, both of them, in the past few years, and I would love to
have a little conversation with them, to tell them what the kids are
doing, make sure everything is all right wherever it is they are. That
touches something very deep. But at the same time, precisely for that
reason, I know that there are people who will try to take advantage of
the vulnerabilities of the bereaved. The spiritualists and the channelers
better have a compelling case.

Or take the idea that by thinking hard at geological formations you can
tell where mineral or petroleum deposits are. Uri Geller makes this
claim. Now if you are an executive of a mineral exploration or
petroleum company, your bread and butter depend on finding the
minerals or the oil: so spending trivial amounts of money, compared
with what you usually spend on geological exploration, this time to find
deposits psychically, sounds not so bad. You might be tempted.
Or take UFOS, the contention that beings in spaceships from other
worlds are visiting us all the time. I find that a thrilling idea. It's at least
a break from the ordinary. I've spent a fair amount of time in my
scientific life working on the issue of the search for extraterrestrial
intelligence. Think how much effort I could save if those guys are
coming here. But when we recognize some emotional vulnerability
regarding a claim, that is exactly where we have to make the firmest
efforts at skeptical scrutiny. That is where we can be had.

Now, let's reconsider channeling. There is a woman in the State of


Washington who claims to make contact with a 35,000-year-old
somebody, "Ramtha" -- she, by the way, speaks English very well with
what sounds to me to be an Indian accent. Suppose we had Ramtha here
and just suppose Ramtha is cooperative. We could ask some questions:
How do we know that Ramtha lived 35,000 years ago? Who is keeping
track of the intervening millennia? How does it come to be exactly
35,000 years? That's a very round number. Thirty-five thousand plus or
minus what? What were things like 35,000 years ago? What was the
climate? Where on Earth did Ramtha live? (I know he speaks English
with an Indian accent, but where was that?) What does Ramtha eat?
(Archaeologists know something about what people ate back then.) We
would have a real opportunity to find out if his claims are true. If this
were really somebody from 35,000 years ago, you could learn a lot about
35,000 years ago. So, one way or another, either Ramtha really is 35,000
years old, in which case we discover something about that period --
that's before the Wisconsin Ice Age, an interesting time -- or he's a phony
and he'll slip up. What are the indigenous languages, what is the social
structure, who else does Ramtha live with -- children, grandchildren --
what's the life cycle, the infant mortality, what clothes does he wear,
what's his life expectancy, what are the weapons, plants, and animals?
Tell us. Instead, what we hear are the most banal homilies,
indistinguishable from those that alleged UFO occupants tell the poor
humans who claim to have been abducted by them.

Occasionally, by the way, I get a letter from someone who is in "contact"


with an extraterrestrial who invites me to "ask anything." And so I have
a list of questions. The extraterrestrial are very advanced, remember. So
I ask things like, "Please give a short proof of Fermat's Last Theorem." Or
the Goldbach Conjecture. And then I have to explain what these are,
because extraterrestrials will not call it Fermat's Last Theorem, so I write
out the little equation with the exponents. I never get an answer. On the
other hand, if I ask something like "Should we humans be good?" I
always get an answer. I think something can be deduced from this
differential ability to answer questions. Anything vague they are
extremely happy to respond to, but anything specific, where there is a
chance to find out if they actually know anything, there is only silence.

The French scientist Henri Poincar6 remarked on why credulity is


rampant: "We also know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder
whether delusion is not more consoling." That's what I have tried to say
with my examples. But I don't think that's the only reason credulity is
rampant. Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach
everybody, let's say high school students, the habit of being skeptical,
perhaps they will not restrict their skepticism to aspirin commercials
and 35,000-year-old channelers (or channelees). Maybe they'll start
asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or
religious institutions. Then where will we be?

Skepticism is dangerous. That's exactly its function, in my view. It is the


business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that's why there is a great
reluctance to teach it in the schools. That's why you don't find a general
fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we
negotiate a very perilous future if we don't have the elementary
intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge,
especially in a democracy?

I think this is a useful moment to reflect on the sort of national trouble


that could have been avoided were skepticism more generally available
in American society. The Iran/Nicaragua fiasco is so obvious an
example I will not take advantage of our poor, beleaguered president
[Reagan] by spelling it out. The Administration's resistance to a
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and its continuing passion for blowing
up nuclear weapons -- one of the major drivers of the nuclear arms race -
- under the pretense of making us "safe" is another such issue. So is Star
Wars. The habits of skeptical thought CSICOP encourages have
relevance for matters of the greatest importance to the nation. There is
enough nonsense promulgated by both political parties that the habit of
evenhanded skepticism should be declared a national goal, essential for
our survival.

I want to say a little more about the burden of skepticism. You can get
into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other
people who don't see things as dearly as you do. This is a potential social
danger present in an organization like CSICOR. We have to guard
carefully against it.

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two


conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are
served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas.
Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you
are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you're
in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You
never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced
that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to
support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a
new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are
too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going
to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of
understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have
not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the
useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then
you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at
all.
Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing
them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in
dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes
of thought that is central to the success of science.

Really good scientists do both. On their own, talking to themselves, they


churn up huge numbers of new ideas and criticize them ruthlessly. Most
of the ideas never make it to the outside world. Only the ideas that pass
through rigorous self-filtration make it out and are criticized by the rest
of the scientific community. It sometimes happens that ideas that are
accepted by everybody turn out to be wrong, or at least partially wrong,
or at least superseded by ideas of greater generality. And, while there
are of course some personal losses -- emotional bonds to the idea that
you yourself played a role inventing -- nevertheless the collective ethic is
that every time such an idea is overthrown and replaced by something
better the enterprise of science has benefited. In science it often happens
that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position
is mistaken," and then they actually change their minds and you never
hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen
as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is
sometimes painful. But it happens every day. 1 cannot recall the last
time something like that has happened in politics or religion. It's very
rare that a senator, say, replies, "That's a good argument. I will now
change by political affiliation."

I would like to say a few things about the stimulating sessions on the
search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and on animal language at
our CSICOP conference. In the history of science there is an instructive
procession for major intellectual battles that turn out, all of them, to be
about how central human beings are. We could call them battles about
the anti-Copernican conceit.

Here are some of the issues:

We are the center of the Universe. All the planets and the stars and the Sun and
the Moon go around us. (Boy, must we be something really special.) That
was the prevailing belief -- Aristarchus aside -- until the time of
Copernicus. A lot of people liked it because it gave them a personally
unwarranted central position in the Universe. The mere fact that you
were on Earth made you privileged. That felt good. Then along came the
evidence that Earth was just a planet and that those other bright moving
points of light were planets too. Disappointing. Even depressing. Better
when we were central and unique.

• But at least our Sun is at the center of the Universe. No, those other
stars, they're suns too, and what's more we're out in the galactic
boondocks. We are nowhere near the center of the Galaxy. Very
depressing.

• Well, at least the Milky Way galaxy is at the center of the Universe.
Then a little more progress in science. We find there isn't any such
thing as the center of the Universe. What's more there are a
hundred billion other galaxies. Nothing special about this one.
Deep gloom.

• Well, at least we humans, we are the pinnacle of creation. We're separate.


All those other creatures, plants and animals, they're lower. We're
higher. We have no connection with them. Every living thing has been
created separately. Then along comes Darwin. We find an
evolutionary continuum. We're closely connected to the other
beasts and vegetables. What's more, the closest biological relatives
to us are chimpanzees. Those are our close relatives -- those guys?
It's an embarrassment. Did you ever go to the zoo and watch
them? Do you know what they do? Imagine in Victorian England,
when Darwin produced this insight, what an awkward truth it
was.

There are other important examples -- privileged reference frames in


physics and the unconscious mind in psychology -- that I'll pass over.

I maintain that in the tradition of this long set of debates -- very one of
which was won by the Copernicans, by the guys who say there is not
much special about us -- there was a deep emotional undercurrent in the
debates in both CSICOP sessions I mentioned. The search for
extraterrestrial intelligence and the analysis of possible animal
"language" strike at one of the last remaining pre-Copernican belief
systems:

• At least we are the most intelligent creatures in the whole Universe. If


there are no other smart guys elsewhere, even if we are connected
to chimpanzees, even if we are in the boondocks of a vast and
awesome universe, at least there is still something special about us.
But the moment we find extraterrestrial intelligence that last bit of
conceit is gone. I think some of the resistance to the idea of
extraterrestrial intelligence is due to the anti-Copernican conceit.
Likewise, without taking sides in the debate on whether other
animals -- higher primates, especially great apes -- are intelligent
or have language, that's clearly, on an emotional level, the same
issue. If we define humans as creatures who have language and no
one else has language, at least we are unique in that regard. But if
it turns out that all those dirty, repugnant, laughable chimpanzees
can also, with Ameslan or otherwise, communicate ideas, then
what is left that is special about us? Propelling emotional
predispositions on these issues are present, often unconsciously, in
scientific debates. It is important to realize that scientific debates,
just like pseudoscientific debates, can be awash with emotion, for
these among many different reasons.

Now, let's take a closer look at the radio search for extraterrestrial
intelligence. How is this different from pseudoscience? Let me give a
couple of real cases. In the early sixties, the Soviets held a press
conference in Moscow in which they announced that a distant radio
source, called CTA-102, was varying sinusoidally, like a sine wave, with
a period of about 100 days. Why did they call a press conference to
announce that a distant radio source was varying? Because they thought
it was an extraterrestrial civilization of immense powers. That is worth
calling a press conference for. This was before even the word "quasar"
existed. Today we know that CTA-102 is a quasar. We don't know very
well what quasars are: and there is more than one mutually exclusive
explanation for them in the scientific literature. Nevertheless, few
seriously consider that a quasar, like CTA-102, is some galaxygirdling
extraterrestrial civilization, because there are a number of alternative
explanations of their properties that are more or less consistent with the
physical laws we know without invoking alien life. The extraterrestrial
hypothesis is a hypothesis of last resort. Only if everything else fails do
you reach for it.

Second example: British scientists in 1967 found a nearby bright radio


source that is fluctuating on a much shorter time scale, with a period
constant to ten significant figures. What was it? Their first thought was
that it was something like a message being sent to us, or an interstellar
navigational beacon for spacecraft that fly the spaces between the stars.
They even gave it, among themselves at Cambridge University, the wry
designation LGM-1-Little Green Men, LGM. However (they were wiser
than the Soviets), they did not call a press conference, and it soon
became clear that what we had here was what is now called a "pulsar."
In fact it was the first pulsar, the Crab Nebula pulsar. Well, what's a
pulsar? A pulsar is a star shrunk to the size of a city, held up as no other
stars are, not by gas pressure, not by electron degeneracy, but by nuclear
forces. It is in a certain sense an atomic nucleus the size of Pasadena.
Now that, I maintain, is an idea at least as bizarre as an interstellar
navigational beacon. The answer to what a pulsar is has to be something
mighty strange. It isn't an extraterrestrial civilization, it's something else:
but a something else that opens our eyes and our minds and indicates
possibilities in nature that we had never guessed at.

Then there is the question of false positives. Frank Drake in his original
Ozma experiment, Paul Horowitz in the META (Megachannel
Extraterrestrial Assay) program sponsored by the Planetary Society, the
Ohio University group and many other groups have all had anomalous
signals that make the heart palpitate. They think for a moment that they
have picked up a genuine signal. In some cases we have not the foggiest
idea what it was; the signals did not repeat. The next night you turn the
same telescope to the same spot in the sky with the same modulation
and the same frequency and band pass everything else the same, and
you don't hear a thing. You don't publish that data. It may be a
malfunction in the detection system. It may be a military AWACS plane
flying by and broadcasting on frequency channels that are supposed to
be reserved for radio astronomy. It may be a diathermy machine down
the street. There are many possibilities. You don't immediately declare
that you have found extraterrestrial intelligence because you find an
anomalous signal.

And if it were repeated, would you then announce? You would not.
Maybe it's a hoax. Maybe it is something you haven't been smart enough
to figure out that is happening to your system. Instead, you would then
call scientists at a bunch of other radio telescopes and say that at this
particular spot in the sky, at this frequency and bandpass and
modulation and all the rest, you seem to be getting something funny.
Could they please look at it and see if they got something similar? And
only if several independent observers get the same kind of information
from the same spot in the sky do you think you have something. Even
then you don't know that the something is extraterrestrial intelligence,
but at least you could determine that it's not something on Earth. (And
that it's also not something in Earth orbit; it's further away than that.)
That's the first sequence of events that would be required to be sure that
you actually had a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization.

Now notice that there is a certain discipline involved. Skepticism


imposes a burden. You can't just go off shouting "little green men,"
because you are going to look mighty silly, as the Soviets did with CTA-
102, when it turns out to be something quite different. A special caution
is necessary when the stakes are as high as here. We are not obliged to
make up our minds before the evidence is in. It's okay not to be sure.

I'm often asked the question, "Do you think there is extraterrestrial
intelligence?" I give the standard arguments -- there are a lot of places
out there, and use the word billions, and so on. And then I say it would
be astonishing to me if there weren't extraterrestrial intelligence, but of
course there is as yet no compelling evidence for it. And then I'm asked,
"Yeah, but what do you really think?" I say, "I just told you what I really
think." "Yeah, but what's your gut feeling?" But I try not to think with
my gut. Really, it's okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

After my article "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection" came out in Parade
(Feb. 1, 1987), he got, as you might imagine, a lot of letters. Sixty-five
million people read Parade. In the article I gave a long list of things that I
said were "demonstrated or presumptive baloney' -- thirty or forty
items. Advocates of all those positions were uniformly offended, so I got
lots of letters. I also gave a set of very elementary prescriptions about
how to think about baloney -- arguments from authority don't work,
every step in the chain of evidence has to be valid, and so on. Lots of
people wrote back, saying, "You're absolutely right on the generalities;
unfortunately that doesn't apply to my particular doctrine." For
example, one letter writer said the idea that intelligent life exists outside
the earth is an excellent example of baloney. He concluded, "I am as sure
of this as of anything in my experience. There is no conscious life
anywhere else in the Universe. Mankind thus returns to its rightful
position as center of the Universe."

Another writer again agreed with all my generalities, but said that as an
inveterate skeptic I have closed my mind to the truth. Most notably I
have ignored the evidence for an Earth that is six thousand years old.
Well, I haven't ignored it; I considered the purported evidence and then
rejected it. There is a difference, and this is a difference, we might say,
between prejudice and postjudice. Prejudice is making a judgment
before you have looked at the facts. Postjudice is making a judgment
afterwards. Prejudice is terrible, in the sense that you commit injustices
and you make serious mistakes. Postjudice is not terrible. You can't be
perfect of course; you may make mistakes also. But it is permissible to
make a judgment after you have examined the evidence. In some circles
it is even encouraged.

I believe that part of what propels science is the thirst for wonder. It's a
very powerful emotion. All children feel it. In a first grade classroom
everybody feels it; in a twelfth grade classroom almost nobody feels it,
or at least acknowledges it. Something happens between first and
twelfth grade, and it's not just puberty. Not only do the schools and the
media not teach much skepticism, there is also little encouragement of
this stirring sense of wonder. Science and pseudoscience both arouse
that feeling. Poor popularizations of science establish an ecological niche
for pseudoscience.

If science were explained to the average person in a way that is


accessible and exciting, there would be no room for pseudoscience. But
there is a kind of Gresham's Law by which in popular culture the bad
science drives out the good. And for this I think we have to blame, first,
the scientific community ourselves for not doing a better job of
popularizing science, and second, the media, which are in this respect
almost uniformly dreadful. Every newspaper in America has a daily
astrology column. How many have even a weekly astronomy column?
And I believe it is also the fault of the educational system. We do not
teach how to think. This is a very serious failure that may even, in a
world rigged with 60,000 nuclear weapons, compromise the human
future.

I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience.


And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning,
science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of
being true.

by Carl Sagan

GL